The death of Almajiri system and the new challenge, by Hassan Gimba

Hassan Gimba.


Almajiri, masculine, or almajira, feminine, is a Hausa word. Almost 50 percent of Hausa is borrowed from Arabic. Almajiri is derived from the word Almuhajirun with Hijrah as root. Hijrah translated to English means migration. The Prophet of Islam, Muhammad (peace be upon him) had to migrate from Makkah in the year 622 AD to Madina in order to escape persecution in his place of birth. Those who partook in the migration are called muhajirun. Almuhajirun, the immigrant. It is a special class in Islam.

However, we equate the word almajiri to “knowledge seeker”. Knowledge is ‘ilm in Arabic and the teacher is an Alim, addressed as Mu’allim, which is Malam to us. The seeker of ‘ilm is a t(d)alib, feminine t(d)aliba. The term refers to any kind of student, not necessarily Islamic. While the feminine in Hausa remains unchanged, the masculine is t(d)alibi.

Here we have dalibai as students but the term almajirai, plurals for dalibi/a and almajiri/a respectively, seems exclusively reserved for Islamic scholars while the former is at times used for those attending western education. Over time, almajiri has become synonymous with part-time beggar.

The kids roaming the northern towns are called almajirai perhaps for two main reasons. One is that they left, or were taken out of, their towns to faraway towns and got erroneously likened to those who migrated with the prophet in the early days of Islam. Though they (Prophet and his companions) ran away from where they were not allowed to worship the way they wanted to, our almajirai’s case is not so. The second is that the muhajirun had no house or property, some not even wives, and so it is with these almajirai or the act of being an almajiri. But we forget that the muhajirun did not beg to survive. They would not even beg.

During the long vacation of 1974 when we were waiting to go to primary five, our late father (may his good soul rest in peace) took us – me and Hussaini, my twin brother – to his elder brother, the late Malam Tijjani, an Islamic Malam with plenty almajirai, in Potiskum, to study the almajiri way. He wanted us to experience what lack and deprivation is, I believe.

Back then, the almajiri system was fun, result-oriented and decent. We started learning, sitting in a circle with a blazing log of wood in the middle, right after dawn prayer. At about 9am we went on a break and returned at noon. By 2pm it’s another break till 4pm. We ended this session at 6pm. We returned at around 7:30pm and rounded off for the day at about 10pm.

The breaks coincided with the times for the three basic meals – breakfast, lunch and dinner. Households knew of almajirai in their vicinity and generally prepared food in good quantity. Some gave out the almajirai portions straight from the pot while others give out leftovers. You would hear shouts of ‘almajiri’ from different angles to which we rushed towards the callers with our plates and pans. Sometimes, we chose which summoning shout to heed to because we knew those whose soup was red and whose was gabza.

After eating in the morning, during the farming seasons, we would go to our Malam’s farm in the town’s outskirts to work and bring back hay for his livestock at home or farm for others for what they could give. At other times those who wanted to learn other vocations, such as embroidery, cap knitting, tailoring, carpentry, or car repairs went there. Breaks were meant for those things, visits and play, not begging as is the practice now.

That was then. Our head almajiri, or head boy, was Malam Hudu Muhammad who later became a commissioner in Yobe State and is now the Chief Imam of the Yobe Central Mosque. After his basic learning in the Tsangaya (almajiri) school of Malam Tijjani, Hudu was privileged to go to a school that married the western and Islamic forms of education and later on went to Sudan and Saudi Arabia to polish off.

We did not go out to beg for money or anything of the sort. But then, we did not give the Malam weekly money. Now they must. We were not greedy because once we had something to eat, we would turn attention to our main  preoccupation, not go out to seek more. We had no property or belongings beyond the basics, but we were okay; the knowledge we were acquiring was enough for us.

But, as in everything else, that was then. Now, even a Hudu would not have studied under a Malam Tijjani because Hudu, being an Ngizim, will now see Malam Tijjani, a Babole, as an enemy.

With the way the almajirai are being returned to their states of origin because of COVID-19, one can safely hazard a guess that the end of the current almajiri system,  which is being practiced only in Nigeria, is in sight. It is not rooted in Islam but in our culture. It will be difficult for it to return – at least in state capitals and major cities across the north – to what it was pre-COVID-19. Even states like Borno and Yobe who refused to repatriate their own almajirai to their states of origin (a commendable act, by the way) will have to look for a better way to take care of them.

Many people argue that the almajiri system brings forth huffaz. Huffaz is the plural of hafiz. A hafiz, hafiza for female, is one who has memorised the Qur’an. But is Nigeria the only country in the world that produces the huffaz? No, and this is evident in international Qur’anic memorisation competitions. All countries – Sudan, Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, etc. – all have systems of imparting Qur’anic knowledge, but they are not demeaning and exploitative like ours has become.

Generally, between 70 and arguably 90 percent of those going through our current almajiri system do not end up with the Qur’an in their hearts, or as Malams. Most fall by the wayside and end up as menial labourers and thugs, while some are recruitment targets for organisations that test our security system. Most members of Boko Haram, many bandits and kidnappers are products of the current almajiri system. Most kids in the system, therefore, end up with neither the intended Qur’anic education nor the western, and no other economic skills because begging is over 80 percent of their curriculum. They are technically out-of-school children.

In 2018, the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) said 69 per cent of Nigeria’s out-of-school children are located in the northern part of the country. A ministerial strategic plan had then put the number at 10.5 million children aged between 6 and 14. A 2015 survey had however put the number of out-of-school children in the country at 13.2 million. That’s the highest in the world and most of them are from the northern states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa, where Boko Haram-induced insecurity has further disrupted academic activities.

The implication of the death of the almajiri system is the challenge as well as opportunity presented to not only governments of the northern states but the traditional rulers to find ways to incorporate the Tsangaya (almajiri) system into western education. The government of Goodluck Jonathan built over 150 of such schools but politics has killed them off. And it is the Muslim north that has lost.

The state governments must include these children in their formal education sector but retain their essence – basically memorizing the Qur’an – while exposing them to western education. Such new schools and the Islamiyya system should adopt the culture of students writing down parts of the Qur’an memorized as done in the Tsangaya.

In January this year, in a piece entitled “Can CAN Open a Can of Peace?,” I wrote on the efforts of the Emir of Gombe, (Dr) Abubakar Shehu Abubakar III, in educating out-of-school kids. “The Emir”, I wrote, “who is also the chancellor of Gombe State University and that of Federal University of Agriculture, Umudike, established a non-governmental organisation, Shehu Usman Abubakar Foundation (SUAF) in 2015, to execute various humanitarian developmental programmes in the state.

“The initiative has succeeded in supporting the needy through its health intervention scheme which supported a thousand internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Gombe as well as contributing to the building of new schools and construction of water boreholes across communities among other essential activities.

“With particular attention to underprivileged and the girl- child, the foundation had in 2015 sponsored 1,500 children of between the ages of six and seven into various primary schools across the state.

“The next year, another set of 1,500 underprivileged children, comprising orphans and children of the less privileged families across the state, were also extended the same scholarship.”

This is the way to go for our privileged class. That’s also how their western counterparts support government’s efforts to uplift the less-privileged and improve their general standard of living. It is not a task to be left for government alone.

Every year, billions are budgeted by the federal and state governments for Umrah and Hajj. This year is not an exception, but everyone will be home. Those funds can be used to revamp the educational system such that these hapless kids can get decent and befitting education. Among these kids are future health workers and engineers.

But governments should not be left alone. It is time our Emirs gathered the well-to-do in their emirates and launched a foundation which should establish such schools. This is the greatest sadaqatul jariya they can do, because in such schools there must be copies of the Qur’an and other books, there must be boreholes and trees planted, mosques erected and knowledge imparted.

Come to think of it, there are those who always go to Umrah every Ramadan so as to be ‘close’ to their God, well, there is no Umrah this fasting period. But here is another way to come very close to Him and the reward continues trickling in ever after. Half of what you should have spent in Umrah and (or) Hajj spent in this way – on these leaders of tomorrow – could be the key to the pleasure of Allah, subhanahu wa ta’ala.

Lest I Forget

Some super doctors from China came in and, sure, they must have completed their 14-day isolation by now. We were told they came with about 256 equipment and items of different quantities which include 1,300,000 medical masks, over 150,000 pieces of assorted protective equipment as well as 50 medical ventilators. Please where are the doctors deployed, what are they doing and where are the items they came with distributed?


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